Nearly four years later, it’s still almost impossible to talk about the Falcons without a 28-3 joke, a reference to Atlanta’s collapse against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. It’s haunted the franchise ever since—they’ve been chasing the highs of the 2016 season, but have never come close; they’ve been more likely to repeat their epic failure against New England, especially in similar defeats this season. Matt Ryan hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since he won the MVP four years ago, the team has just one playoff appearance in that stretch, the offense has been in steady decline, the defense is even worse, and the squad currently sits at 0-5 for the first time since 1997.
Sunday evening, the Falcons opted for a fresh start, firing head coach Dan Quinn, who has been at the helm since 2015, as well as general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who has been with the organization for even longer—since 2008. It’s the end of an era in Atlanta that, much like that Super Bowl, began with incredible promise but ended in bitter disappointment.
The Super Bowl hangover was not immediate. The Falcons went 10-6 the following season in 2017, knocking off the Rams in the NFC wild-card round and falling just five points short to the eventual champion Eagles in the divisional round. But the NFL’s no. 1 offense by DVOA in 2016 slipped to ninth in 2017, stayed at ninth in 2018, dropped to 15th in 2019, and came into Week 5 of this season ranked 21st. The Falcons have won just seven games in each of the past two seasons, and Quinn’s job seemed to be in jeopardy after a 1-7 start last season. A 6-2 finish gave him a chance to prove that the Falcons could carry that momentum into 2020.
That didn’t happen. The Falcons lost to the Panthers on Sunday, 23-16, in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. Atlanta trailed 20-7 at halftime, and kicked a field goal with four seconds left to make it a one-score game. It was maybe the team’s most toothless performance of the season, which is a high (low?) bar to clear after they blew double-digit leads in two of their first three games—16 points to Chicago, 19 points to Dallas—and got boat-raced by Green Bay on Sunday Night Football last week. At times this season, it felt like the Falcons didn’t just lose a Super Bowl three years ago—they lost their soul.
“[The players] are upset. They’re frustrated, just like we are,” Quinn said after the loss to the Panthers. “There’s a lot of ingredients right, but we have to make sure, just like I said—as players, coaches, collectively together—we’ve got to be able to leave our mark on the wins, play calls, big plays, the execution in the moment, when they come up, we have to be able to nail that. No excuses on our end.”
Quinn has frequently said he’s frustrated this season—probably because there is little else left to say. The Falcons have been trying to find the 2016 magic for too long now, and in firing Quinn, the team is taking the ultimate step to look forward, not backward. The Falcons were at their best with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator—he left Atlanta to become the 49ers head coach after Super LI—and the team will probably look for a young, offensive-minded coach in the Shanahan mold to take over the reins.
Whoever the team taps to take over for Dimitroff will have a similar challenge. Quinn is correct that a lot of the ingredients are right. Ryan is still one of the league’s better quarterbacks. Wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley make up one of the better pass-catching duos in the NFL, especially with Ridley emerging as a bona fide star this season. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett also made the Pro Bowl last season. Large portions of this roster need to be overhauled—including most of the defense—but this team is not tanking for Trevor Lawrence. It’s looking to reload with Ryan and Co. and ultimately, the new coach and general manager Atlanta hires will have the same task: give this franchise a fresh start.